Investigation pushed for by marine aquaculture opponents seen as a ploy to delay salmon farm licence renewals in British Columbia

New probe involves old claims by anti-salmon farming activists

Investigation pushed for by marine aquaculture opponents seen as a ploy to delay salmon farm licence renewals in British Columbia

By Fabian Dawson

An investigation into the conduct of government officials related to marine aquaculture in British Columbia, is a ploy orchestrated by activists to delay the licence renewals for salmon farms on Canada’s west coast.

The probe by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner was initiated by an activist group, whose supporters have made similar accusations before, all of which have been investigated and dismissed as having no merit.

“You can bet the activists and their supporters will be demanding that the licence renewals and transition plans be put on hold pending this investigation that they called for,” said a fisheries scientist, who worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“It is a desperate ploy to muddy the waters and delay the government from renewing the licences which expire next month,” he told SeaWestNews, adding the integrity of those making the allegations should also be investigated.

The Federal government is currently considering renewing the expiring salmon farming licenses for a period of between six and nine years, pending the formulation of a Transition Plan for the sector in the province.

The Liberal government, at the behest of activists, has already shut down 40% of salmon farms since 2020, despite a plethora of scientific studies and court rulings that state the marine operations have minimal impacts on migrating wild stocks.

The Globe and Mail first reported on the investigation yesterday naming Lesley MacDougall, science adviser and division manager at the Aquaculture Management Directorate, and Arran McPherson, assistant deputy minister of ecosystems and oceans science, as key targets of the probe.

It said that Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Harriet Solloway determined a probe into the conduct of DFO officialsis warranted based on concerns raised by Tony Allard, the wealthy chair of Wild Salmon Forever, an anti-fish farming activist group.

Allard and his cohorts have ratcheted up their campaign to remove salmon farms in BC fearing that the current Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier, unlike her activist-friendly predecessors, will opt to let science instead of their fearmongering dictate the future of marine aquaculture in the province.

Lebouthillier has said there will be no more closures of salmon farms in BC pending the Transition Plan, triggering personal attacks on her and her department officials on the activists’ social media channels.

The activists have often accused government scientists and DFO officials of being influenced by industry pressures, especially when the scientific studies produce results that do not support their agenda. The strategic motive is to discredit government scientists and weaken the legitimacy of regulatory agencies to bolster support and public donations for the activist groups.

They are particularly incensed that DFO has accepted 10 studies from the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) that show salmon farms in BC pose less than a minimal risk to wild stocks.

The activists have also been signalling that the government should ignore the rights of First Nations who see salmon farming in their traditional territories as a pathway for economic reconciliation. Currently in BC, all the existing salmon farms are supported by the First Nations communities that they operate in.

Earlier this month, the Coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, released a comprehensive report, to reinforce the socio-economic importance of the sector and stressed that the future of salmon farming in BC must be determined by First Nations who want to farm fish in their traditional territories.

The ‘scientific textbook’ called Modern Salmon Farming in British Columbia: A Review, is also aimed at closing the knowledge gaps about the industry and counter the campaign of disinformation by anti-salmon farming opponents.

In letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday, the Coalition reiterated its call for a six-year licence reissuance for the salmon farms in the traditional territories of its member nations, pending the transition process.

 “Our Nations have been working closely with DFO Minister Lebouthillier to ensure that this transition process respects First Nations rights, title, self-determination, economic autonomy, and our strength of claim regarding salmon farming in our waters,” the letter read.

The coalition has said it is opposed to the federal government disregarding science and bowing to unfounded activist claims on salmon farming that, if heeded, “will severely damage our communities, and deny our rights and title.”

This is not the first time that Allard and his anti-salmon farming allies have triggered investigations based on their claims, which eventually have been proven to be false.

In 2018 the activists triggered a $100,000 government investigation after they questioned the integrity of scientists at the provincial Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, BC.

The government inquiry debunked the claims and found the Animal Health Centre operates with strong professional, scientific and ethical integrity. The review process found no evidence of “dubious data or conflict of interest,” as claimed by the activists.

In 2022, a study by prominent fish health specialists in the Pacific Northwest, published in the Journal of Aquatic Health, warned that questionable claims peddled widely by anti-aquaculture activists, are causing unnecessary controversies over salmon farming in BC, leading to a waste of public resources.

One example cited in the study were the conclusions drawn by Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, a federal fisheries scientist known for her anti-salmon farming stance. She claims that the Piscine Reovirus (PRV) is responsible for heart issues and jaundice in wild salmon, despite a volume of existing peer reviewed scientific evidence that finds PRV does not cause disease in fish in the Pacific.

It “caused needless public concerns…the overall scientific consensus was that the northeastern Pacific variant of PRV-1a is not a significant disease-causing agent in Pacific salmonids contrary to the misinformation claiming the virus is a threat to wild fish populations and resource sustainability,” said the study by the fish health specialists.

More recently, Allard’s supporters were forced to remove ads, containing false information about salmon farming, in Ottawa and Vancouver.

The activists have also falsely claimed that sea lice levels in the Discovery Islands have decreased due to the removal of salmon farms in the area.

Data collected by registered biologists and government scientists over a seven-year period showed that sea lice levels have been consistently low in the area while salmon farms were operating and after they left.

The activists have also been using the world-wide abundance of Pink Salmon to push false narratives that the high returns – also being recorded in British Columbia – are due to closures of open-net aquaculture operations on Canada’s west coast.

(Image shows Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Harriet Solloway)